In Hawthorn v. Georgia-Pacific Brewton, LLC, et al., No. 21-10142, __F.App’x__, 2021 WL 3852231 (11th Cir. Aug. 30, 2021), Plaintiff-Appellant George Hawthorn appealed the district court’s grant of summary judgment to his former employer, Defendant-Appellee Georgia-Pacific Brewton, LLC, on his claims for ERISA-governed severance benefits and alleged unlawful interference with those benefits prohibited by ERISA § 510.
“ERISA prohibits an employer from discharging a participant in an employee benefit plan for the purpose of interfering with the attainment of any right to which the participant may become entitled under the plan. 29 U.S.C. § 1140.” Hawthorn claimed he was terminated before he would have qualified for severance benefits resulting from an anticipated company reorganization that would have eliminated his position. The court assumed without deciding that Hawthorn established a prima facie case of discrimination, including that he was entitled to ERISA’s protection, he was qualified for the position, and he was discharged under circumstances giving rise to an inference of discrimination. The court found that Hawthorn failed to rebut Defendant’s legitimate reasons for his termination, including that he made 28 payroll errors which resulted in employees he supervised receiving higher wages than those approved by HR. Even if these mistakes were honest mistakes, they are a legitimate reason for his termination. Though another employee made payroll errors and was not terminated, that employee only made two errors, so he is not similarly situated in all material respects.
With respect to Hawthorn’s claim that he was entitled to severance benefits under the terms of the plan, the court found that he did not meet the plan’s requirements. He could only receive benefits if his job was eliminated, and he remained in his job through the elimination date. “Here, Hawthorn was terminated for cause before his position was eliminated as part of the mill’s reorganization.” The court also rejected Hawthorn’s claim that the severance plan administrator did not comply with ERISA’s procedural requirements by failing to interview people involved in his termination, taking too long to decide his appeal, or by not including certain exhibits he filed as part of the “administrative record”. The court did not find that these failings undermined the fairness of the review or prejudiced Hawthorn in any way.